Sunday, July 25, 2010

Matt Ridley: Rational—or Irrational?--Optimist

I normally like to wait until I've completed a book before writing a review of it; however, in this case, I feel compelled to make an exception. The book, Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves (2010 448p.) is at once convincing and irritating. On the convincing side, Ridley provides a convincing summary of the gains of humankind over the centuries, a tale of economic progress when we view humanity as a whole. His premise is relatively simple: that exchange, of goods and ideas has benefited humans over the millennia. Indeed, ideas, intangible but crucial knowledge about how things work or can be done, are like the flame of a candle: they can be shared without diminishing the value held by the original holder. (Ridley, however, does talk about patents and licensing of ideas, so take that last statement with a great big asterisk.) Nonetheless, in his cute term, "ideas have sex"; that is, the interchange of ideas, mixing and matching, much like the pool of genes in sexual reproduction, generates new and novel outcomes. Ingenuity and innovation become the drivers of progress. In all of this, I find Ridley's examples persuasive and well taken. I agree with him, and he provides a sound summary. But then he goes too far.

The aspect of Ridley's book that I find disconcerting comes from those portions of the book where he thinks like a turkey. Not any turkey mind you, a Nassim Taleb turkey (and before him, Bertrand Russell's chicken). While Taleb is most readily identified with the Black Swan, the intriguing fowl and metaphor, he's also written extensively and with great persuasion about turkeys. Taleb writes about the turkey that grows up in the habit of receiving food each day from the kind man, believing that this routine will continue without end—until the day before Thanksgiving. The turkey surrendered to the fallacy of induction.

Ridley writes a great deal about pessimists who have doubted the human future—how wrong they've been. And within certain parameters, he's right; many a prediction of woe and disaster has come and gone, and nothing happened. Thus, Ridley ridicules (with only a minor nod to the contrary) those who predict problems in the human future. "We've been fed and watered by the nice man every day so far, so certainly it will continue tomorrow", he seems to be saying. Well, maybe. We haven't suffered a nuclear holocaust; we haven't seen starvation for lack of adequate food supplies (worldwide); we haven't seen the polar ice melt, and so on. But if you're like me, to take the last example as a point of consideration, how do we know that we won't soon see the melting of the polar ice caps? How do we know that we can feed another couple of billion people, the current population projection even considering the continuing drop in human fertility rates? How can we be sure, even given the end of the Cold War, that we won't see some type of nuclear exchange in the future? In fact, we don't know, and we'd be wise indeed to take affirmative steps to avoid such catastrophes.

What Ridley fails to distinguish is the difference between prophecy and prediction. Predictions are often wrong. As Yogi said, "the future just ain't what it used to be". The farther out we try to look in the crystal ball, the hazier it all becomes. This is true for predictions of utopia as well as predictions of doom. Ridley provides numerous examples of predictions of gloom and pessimism that have not born out; he curiously ignores the batting average of predictions of utopia. Contrary to some predictions, we are not living the lives of the Jetsons. (Sorry, younger readers, ask your parents or Google it.) As opposed to prediction, prophecy includes an implicit "if . . . then" clause. If we do not change our ways, then something bad will happen. Although I cannot speak with certainty, I think that this was the mode of the Old Testament prophets: "if you don't shape-up Israel, then you will suffer bad consequences". (Israel seemed to have regularly ignored these warnings.) Prophecies, in my definition, don't try to predict a deus ex machina (Black Swan) for good or ill, but they do follow the path straight into the future. Thus, when warnings of chlorofluorocarbons did not continue to burn a whole in the Earth's ozone layer, should we say that such predictions were mistaken, or should we say more accurately that we heeded the prophecy? I think the latter. The same goes for limiting the possibility of a nuclear exchange: were such predictions mere doom and gloom, or were we lucky in part and wise in part. As someone who witnessed the Cuban missile crisis (from my grandmother and her television) and has since read and seen a good deal about it, I think we were lucky and wise, and with a little less of either, we might not be here now. Prophecies of gloom have an important role to play if they move us toward repentance or a change of course. Ridley really undervalues this, almost ridicules it, and I think that he really misses some subtle but crucial distinctions.

I also must comment that Babylonians, Jews, Athenians, Romans, Mayans, Incas, Aztecs, Chinese (in the past), and on and on and on, have experienced catastrophic decline. Humanity has progressed over the ages, but not all persons in all places and in all times. Ridley is correct in singing the praises of the improvements in the world since the advent of the Industrial Revolution. He is right in describing even the "dark Satanic mills" as a better life than rural poverty and destitution. I make no bones about the fact that I was born at a time and place and into a family that gave me a life that billions of humans before me would have envied beyond their wildest dreams, and I'm nothing special in my cohort. However, it can all go to hell in a hand basket, quickly. Caboose's article citing the perils of a solar electrical storm is a threat that I've never heard of before, while on the other hand, global climate change or economic disaster (too much debt or too much austerity) are well known threats. We cannot, as Ridley seems to suggest, simply innovate our way out of every problem. If we're so great at innovation, why did we allow millions of gallons of oil spew into the Gulf this summer, causing untold damage? No, we are in some ways smart creatures, but we're not living in an Indiana Jones universe where every peril is resolved by the hero's pluck and ingenuity. We'd do better to avoid as many perils as possible, and to this end, a prudent and considered caution—not fatalistic pessimism—should govern.

I'd like to suggest two works by Canadian political scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon to you and Matt Ridley: First, The Ingenuity Gap: Facing the Economic, Environmental, and Other Challenges of an Increasingly Complex and Unpredictably Future (2002). I think that the long title gives you a pretty good sense of the author's take. Complexity, especially, allows small changes of input into a system to create unpredictable and quite variable outcomes. We live in a world that is more complex, like the weather, and less predictable, as opposed the linear world of a car engine. The other Homer-Dixon book to consult is The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization (2008). Again, the title tells you a lot; Homer-Dixon isn't a wild-eyed Cassandra, but an MIT-trained political scientist who carefully considers the many possibilities and challenges. Finally, I recommend Taleb's The Black Swan, about how collapse can come suddenly and unexpectedly—the negative Black Swan.

I recommend this book because it contains a lot that is good and accurate, and even where I find it irritating, at least it's quite thought provoking.